By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
The First-Year Player Draft is out of the way and at least six Stanford players, including at least five pitchers, became aware their services are coveted by Major League baseball. It's certainly an indication of a successful season.
So far, anyway.
Another two wins and the 21st-ranked Cardinal (35-20) will be headed to Omaha for the College World Series.
That's easier said than done, of course. Seventh-ranked North Carolina (48-14) stands in the way and Stanford travels to the Tar Heels' home turf for the best two-of-three Super Regional.
"They're a very good team," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "They swept (top ranked) Virginia at the end of the season, they have good pitching and they play well at home."
The Super Regional opens Friday at noon (PT) and continues Saturday, also at noon. Sunday's if necessary game will be played at 1 p.m.
The Tar Heels are 34-3 at home while Stanford sports a 14-13 record on the road. North Carolina ranks No. 1 in the RPI rankings while the Cardinal ranks No. 17.
"This is the reason we play at Texas, at Vanderbilt and at Rice," Marquess said. "We've prepared for playing good teams on the road. With us you never know what you'll get though being so young. It all gets down to pitching."
The Tar Heels have it, sporting a team ERA of 3.25. Stanford has it too, with a 3.40 team ERA. Both teams had a relief pitcher taken in the draft too, with Cardinal closer Chris Reed going to the Los Angeles Dodgers and NC's Greg Holt picked by the Washington Nationals.
North Carolina shortstop Levi Michael was the Minnesota Twins' top choice, while Stanford's lone position player drafted was catcher Zach Jones, in the 34th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Stanford pitchers Scott Snodgress, Jordan Pries, Brett Mooneyham and Danny Sandbrink (to the Giants) joined Reed as drafted players.
"We know North Carolina can hit and pitch," Stanford infielder Stephen Piscotty said. "They are a solid team and we have our work cut out for us. We're going to have to bring it every day."
Piscotty leads the Cardinal with a .370 batting average and is second on the team with 40 RBI. He's had to face five pitchers who were drafted in the first round, and eight drafted among the first 80 picks.
"That has certainly prepared us for the postseason and given us confidence," Piscotty said of facing pitchers like the UCLA tandem of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, Texas' Taylor Jungman, Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray and Oregon's Tyler Anderson. "We've played good teams all year long. We've played a tough schedule."
Piscotty has proven to be a tough out. He has the best on-base percentage (.430) and slugging percentage (.477) on the team and strikes out an average of once every 9.1 at-bats, making him the toughest to strike out on the team.
"Stephen has been our most consistent hitter," Marquess said. "That's a carryover from last year."
Piscotty said it's all just a product of hard work.
"Staying aggressive is the big key," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well and all through our lineup the team is swinging it well. It's hard for opposing teams to defend us."
Piscotty hit a home run to give Stanford its only production of a 1-0 victory over host Cal State Fullerton in the key matchup of last weekend's regional. Thanks to a Kansas State coach, he has the ball.
"He went out to find it and shook it free," Piscotty said. "It had gotten stuck in the netting."
Tyler Gaffney also had a big weekend in more ways than one. The sophomore outfielder not only extended his hitting streak to 20 games, he was at the center of controversy both on defense and on the basepaths.
"There's no question he can be a major league baseball player," Marquess said. "There's nothing he can't do. He's a competitor."
Gaffney's sporting career began with baseball and he'll be keeping his options open when it comes to the 2012 First-Year Player draft.
"Baseball is funny in that you can be unlucky one day and all of a sudden it turns around," Gaffney said. "I grew up with baseball ever since I could hit a ball off a tee. I didn't start playing football until I was a freshman in high school."
He'll smile when you ask him about the catch (or non-catch) he made against the Titans, ending their best scoring chance. Super slow motion replays indicate the ball bounced into his glove.
"I might have had an idea," he said.
He also went face-to-face with the Titans' first baseman, the pitcher's brother, after a single. He thought Gaffney was showing his brother up.
"That was tame," Marquess said. "The guy was just backing his pitcher. Gaffney just has to say something."
Reed, who went undrafted out of high school, was a surprise to a lot of people. He went from barely pitching his first two years to rising star as a junior.
"I think it was a matter of evolving," Reed said. "I was working hard but things weren't working out last year. I just set my mind to do it. This is what I wanted to do as a career. I changed my mechanics a little bit with my hip drive but just getting innings was huge for me. I got the feel for pitching."
Reed also said a 10 minute conversation in the fall with Stanford product Drew Storen, now the Washington Nationals' closer, was a big help.
"He told me to establish my fastball and taught me to pitch to my strengths," Reed said. "I still remember it."
Storen, who was in town for a series against the San Francisco Giants earlier this week, also remembered the conversation.
"I told him the same things (Stanford grad) Jeff Austin told me," Storen said. "He was a freshman when I was there and I could see he looked different in the fall. He had some moxie about him. I saw him close the game out against Fullerton. He looked good."
The Dodgers drafted him to be a starter and that's just fine with Reed.
"I want to be a starter," Reed said. "My changeup is not fully developed and I love throwing that pitch. It helps keep hitters off balance. I know it's a process and I have to be happy with where I am from where I started."